Jesus calls Himself “the true vine” (John 15:1). His disciples are the branches. Sounds good so far, but we soon realize that his Father is the vinedresser who wields the pruning shears. Every fruitless branch is simply cut off and thrown into the fire, but the fruitful branches are pruned so as to bear even more fruit.
While being aware that we can persist in sin so as to become wholly unfruitful and then be cut off, I prefer today to focus on the branches that are pruned unto greater fruitfulness. There’s a little wordplay in this text of the Gospel: Jesus says that the Father prunes (kathairei) the fruitful branch, and then immediately adds, “you [the disciples] are now clean (katharoi) because of the word I have spoken” (vv. 2-3). The word katharos means clean or pure (this is where the name Catherine comes from; likewise a “catharsis” is a purifying experience). The verb form kathairo therefore means to cleanse or purify, but it also means to clear by pruning.
So Jesus is telling the disciples that in their case his own words are the pruning shears of the Father, the action of which will produce more fruit. “You are clean (pruned) because of the word I have spoken” (v. 3) Having been pruned through enlightenment by the word of the Lord, the disciples are now invited to “abide” in the Vine.
Jesus makes it clear that if pruning is necessary for bearing more and better fruit, abiding in the Vine is necessary for the very possibility of bearing fruit in the first place. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (v. 4). Then He makes his point, without any more allegorical language: “Without me you can do nothing” (v. 5).
Is it literally true that without Jesus we can do nothing? The answer is yes and no and yes. Yes, first of all, because without the creative and sustaining power of God we would not even be able to exist for an instant, let alone do anything. But then no, if we mean doing anything without the direct spiritual action of Christ upon us. We can certainly sin without Christ (and if we wish to be without Him, that’s exactly what we’ll end up doing), for He does not support or enable our evil. Nor do we need explicit reference to Him for tying our shoes or making a sandwich. As long has his divine power keeps us in existence, He allows us to make our choices and go about our lives freely, with or without acknowledging or relying on Him. But finally, yes, because without Jesus we can do nothing that is ultimately worthwhile. We cannot do good, become holy, keep his commandments, or do anything that leads to our salvation without the explicit gift of his divine grace. Whatever good we think we can do without Him will ultimately amount to nothing.
So we must abide in the Vine, draw our sustenance, strength, wisdom, peace and joy from Him. He gets more personal a few verses later: “Abide in my love” (v. 9). How do we abide in his love? Do we just luxuriate in the thought or feeling of it, or simply claim that we do so without really knowing what we’re talking about? Jesus makes it clear: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v. 10). Love is always about willing and doing, not about wishing, fantasizing, or talking: “Let us not love [merely] in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth” (1John 3:18).
It should be consoling to us that without Jesus we can do nothing, for the other side of that coin is: “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). The Vine is the source of our life, and our abiding therein is the assurance of our salvation. Let us not be afraid of being pruned by the sharp edge of the word of God (see Heb. 4:12). That is infinitely better than to be made barren, diseased, and withered by the world, the flesh and the devil. Keep the Lord’s commandments and thus abide in his love. In this the Father shall be glorified, and in this your joy shall be full.